Thursday, 16 February 2017

Local antihero

When I first moved into this area in 1985, I was struck by how dominant Robinson’s brewery were in and around Stockport. In the town itself they owned not far short of half the pubs, and in some suburban centres such as Hazel Grove and Marple they enjoyed a near-monopoly. Indeed, after two Wilson’s pubs closed down, they owned all six pubs in the centre of Marple. They also had concentrations of pubs in places further afield such as Sandbach in south Cheshire and large swathes of Tameside. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) their strong local position, they were never regarded with the same affection as many other independent brewers, notably Boddingtons in the 1970s.

They served real ale in virtually all their pubs, and I always thought their leading product, Best Bitter (now Unicorn) was a fine beer, but it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. There are still CAMRA members around who will say “I just don’t like Robinson’s beer”. There was also the problem of selling a 4.2% best bitter as an ordinary, which led to complaints that it gave you a bad head. And, in the 1980s, they didn’t seem to take much interest in how well their tenants kept their beer so, while many were very conscientious, in some pubs it could be highly variable.

There were also dramatic contrasts in their pub estate. In the 1960s and 70s they seemed to have had an enthusiasm for drastic and self-consciously modern interior refurbishments, featuring white artexed walls, “Spanish arches”, low-level lounge-style chairs and fake bottle-glass window panes, which became known as “Robinsonisation” and gained them a bad name for pub vandalism. By the mid-80s these schemes had become dated and came across as very unappealing. At the same time, their budget for general repairs and maintenance of their estate seemed to be limited, which did result in the preservation of a number of historic interiors, but sadly left many pubs looking just run-down and tatty.

In the 1970s, they built a large new packaging plant on an industrial estate at Bredbury, and apparently at one time there were plans, never realised, to move brewing operations there too away from the cramped town-centre site. This seemed to speak of expectations never quite fulfilled, and I get the impression that Sir John Robinson, who died in 1978 at the age of 82, was a very dominant and ambitious character whose determination was not matched by his three sons, Peter, Dennis and David.

The company certainly didn’t rest on its laurels, most notably with the acquisition of Hartley’s Brewery of Ulverston and its Lake District tied estate in 1982. There was a continued trickle of new pub acquisitions, including some from the big pub companies in the 2000s, although Lees now seem to be more active in that field. The beer range was rebranded, with Best Mild becoming Hatters and Best Bitter Unicorn, and new beers such as Frederics and Dizzy Blonde introduced, as well as seasonal guest beers. But there was always the impression that they were a conservatively-run company who tended to be behind the curve, not leading it.

However, in recent years the next generation has come to the fore, with the leading lights now being William, son of Dennis, and Oliver, son of David. Across a number of fronts they have taken drastic action to deal with the radically changed environment in which brewers now operate. One of the most high-profile was the decision two years ago to axe 1892, formerly Hatters Mild, which only forty years ago had still been the brewery’s best-selling beer. The ostensible reason was that declining volumes meant that the brewery was unable to produce sufficiently small batches. Yet this came across more as an excuse, given that Holts, Hydes and Lees still continue to produce presumably even smaller quantities of cask mild, and Robinson’s themselves brew a keg smooth mild which could surely have been used as the base of a cask product. It was more a case of sending a message that Robinson’s were a forward-looking company who wanted to put the past behind them.

To be fair, they did at the same time introduce an excellent new classic “ordinary bitter”, Wizard, which I’d say has now become my favourite Robinson’s beer. They have also enjoyed great success with the Iron Maiden-themed beer Trooper, which has been exported in bottled form all around the world. Yet, despite this, apparently the current level of production at their impressive tower brewery is a mere 30,000 barrels a year, or less than two barrels a week for each pub they own. The official History of Robinson’s Brewery book does not give any production figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at times in the past it has exceeded 100,000 barrels.

They have also carried out a drastic cull of under-performing pubs. The book records that, at the time of the acquisition of Hartley’s in 1982, the combined company owned 416 pubs, but it has now dropped to well below 300, with both urban locals and the smaller rural pubs falling under the axe. Locally in Stockport, well-loved favourites such as the Grapes, Waterloo and Tiviot have been lost. While this is just part of the overall trend that has led to the loss of thousands of pubs across the country, Robinson’s do seem to have been more thoroughgoing than most, and several pubs have gone that I would have thought bankers for long-term success. To their credit, they haven’t imposed restrictive covenants on any of their disposals, and a few have been brought back to life by new owners, but the majority haven’t. And there are quite a few Robinson’s pubs still open that I struggle to see enjoying a long-term future.

Part of the problem with the viability of their pubs seems to be that they seem unable, or unwilling, to provide a financial support package to their urban tenants to enable them to be price competitive. Robinson’s have never been known for being particularly cheap, but when their main competitors were Wilson’s and other members of the Big Six, this didn’t really matter. However, now they’re up against Wetherspoon’s, Sam Smith’s, Holts, independent free houses and some pub company pubs that do have seven-day low prices, they’re left very exposed. Even if both pub and beer are much better, if you’re on a budget it takes some commitment to choose to pay £2.90 in the Robbies’ pub rather than £2 for John Smith’s in the Punch house down the road.

With investment funds available, a growing number of the pubs that remain have been subjected to drastic and often highly insensitive refurbishments, with “removing obstructing internal walls” being a common element. The wholesale removal of comfortable bench seating, replacing soft carpets with hard wooden floors, and making extensive use of cold, unpubby pastel colour schemes, are typical features. One of the worst was the Bull’s Head in Halebarns, which their website describes as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say is more a monument to impracticality and pretension. And their vandalism of the untouched, National Inventory-listed Holly Bush in Bollington was completely unforgiveable. Fortunately there are still some classic unspoilt pubs in their estate such as the Armoury, Blossoms and Arden Arms, in Stockport, but their numbers are steadily dwindling.

I was distinctly unimpressed by the comments of William Robinson about the smoking ban that “The pub trade has evolved to become much stronger and more inclusive”. Given that the level of beer sales has fallen off a cliff, that comes across as an exercise in self-delusion on a par with Spinal Tap claiming that their appeal had become “more exclusive”. Working-class beer drinkers were once the bedrock of their pubs, but apparently they no longer matter. Sir John must have been turning in his grave.

Obviously Robinson’s is a commercial company, and its directors must take the actions they see best to secure its future prosperity, which may need to include grasping nettles and slaughtering sacred cows. But, by their policies in recent years, I’m afraid the current generation have forfeited a lot of goodwill.

19 comments:

  1. An impassioned post, and quite a lot I didn't know. I guess the other issue is that Robinsons can't compete for the cheap dining market, though a few of their pubs stand out (Arden,Bakers, Railway in Marple).
    MT

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    1. Not sure they really have the locations to compete in cheap'n'cheerful family dining, although plenty of their pubs seem to do OK with expensive dining.

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  2. We really enjoyed the Robinsons pubs in Stockport. I also loved Unicorn as a beer. I think I tend to like the style pubs you do, but I have to say the Bakers Arms was not as offensive as I expected. Do the remodels attract a younger consumer? My recollection is Boar's Head was a much older crowd than the Bakers Arms.

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    1. The average age was low in the Baker's Vaults until we walked in. I think we lowered the average age in the Boar's Head. Excellent beer, that Unicorn.

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    2. I recall you telling us about a conversation with the landlady of the Armoury where she expressed a very pessimistic view of the future.

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    3. Very true. Predicted the pub would not be there in ten years.

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    4. Which would be a very sad loss indeed. Although I'd say the Florist up the road is more vulnerable. I might even be prepared to stump up a bit for a community bid for the Armoury, if it came to that.

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    5. That was one of my favorite pubs in Stockport. Great place. I'm in.

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  3. The low production is probably a reflection of 70% of their customers drinking nationally known lagers now.

    The other factor to do with price is that if you are in a group that mainly drinks Carling/Fosters/Carlsberg they will probably be reluctant to pay extra so you can have your choice.

    The pub trade has obviously not become stronger. I would regularly go to the pub for a couple of hours: now, as a smoker, I only do that if the weather is good enough to sit outside. So I do that less often and at other times stay for just one drink. Some pubs might be more inclusive if they have attracted families or diners but a lot of pubs can’t do that. And overall, a lot of pubs might have attracted a few extra people who come occasionally but have lost a lot more who came regularly.

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    1. Interesting first point, I was talking to someone at Joules the other day who confirmed that, despite the traditional nature of their pubs and their locations, their best seller is Carling.

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    2. I would guess that, in pretty much every pub with the exception of dedicated alehouses or craft beer bars, cooking lager is the best seller.

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  4. The Artex walls and bubble glass panes brought back memories, but the scene is not complete without beaten copper table tops and blue and white plastic ashtrays!

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  5. Who dumped who at the end of this long term love affair?

    Was it Robbies chasing the tail of affluent diners and ignoring the loyal old codger bitter drinkers and their need for a cheap pint?

    Was it you unhappy that they have not maintained their looks and wandered off for a dalliance with Samuel Smith?

    Either way, when the love is gone, the love is gone.

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  6. Although the smoking ban has lowered the number of pub visitors, is there an increase of visits from people who now go because there is no smoking? If so, I would imagine it is not even close to making up for the loss of smokers.

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    1. Oh, I think the loss of smoking customers (and their friends) greatly outweighs any new ones that have been attracted. I've made the point before that many people who claimed to object to smoky pubs were basically rather prissy individuals who didn't really much like pubs anyway. If they now go twice a year rather than once it isn't much help to the pubs.

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    2. That would seem to fit what my limited experience would suggest.

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    3. The ban has certainly hastened the shift towards food oriented pubs, which does little for beer volumes.

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  7. I had never heard of Robinsons until I went up to Salford University in the autumn of 1973. With my offer of a place arriving late, coupled with student accommodation being quite hard to come by in the Manchester area (not that surprising, given the three universities and one polytechnic crowded into the central conurbation), I spent my first term staying with my aunt. She lived in Romiley, not far from Stockport, so it wasn’t really surprising that there were a number of Robinson’s pubs in the locality.

    The company’s beers weren’t all that well regarded at the time, although I quite enjoyed them. Most Robinson’s pubs used electric pump dispense, back in those days; the Star in Back Hope Street, Higher Broughton, which was quite close to the then university halls of residence, being one of the few exceptions. The company’s pubs weren’t all that common in that part of Salford either.

    Fast forward 40 years, and I know where you are coming from Mudge. Robinson’s beers still fail to excite, and they don’t seem to travel well either, (not that we see them much in this part of the country). It’s interesting what you say about the generation thing with regard to these old family brewers; sometimes the new generation do really well, and continue to build on the work of the previous generation. At other times, they completely screw up.

    Jacqueline and Stuart Bateman at Bateman’s, plus Jonathan Neame at Shepherd Neame, are examples of the former. For want of not wishing to invite legal action, I won’t list those family breweries which have vanished over the last few decades, due to the ineptitude, or greed, of a new generation; but I’m certain we can all think of a few names.

    Bill Tidy summed it up well, many years ago with an episode of his Keg Buster cartoon. Old man Crudgington looks on despairingly as his wayward son, Tarquin, drives by, at speed, in his sport-car, with a bevy of scantily-dressed young ladies in tow. He turns to Keg Buster and asks, “Where did I go wrong?”

    In typical Bill Tidy fashion, it turns out the old man is referring to a new beer, which is not quite up to scratch, but the message about a “good for nothing, wayward son”, who is determined to live life to the full and squander his inheritance, at the expense of the brewery, is not lost on the audience.

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    1. Oh, I remember Tarquin Crudgington well, but the latest generation of Robinsons are doing the exact opposite. They undoubtedly take the future of the company very seriously, and Oliver in particular is an impressive speaker. But the trouble is that they seem to have decided to ride roughshod over tradition to do so.

      They could easily sell up, take the money and run. Most of Robinsons' pubs are freehold, and the total value of their property portfolio must be well in excess of £100 million.

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